Islamic organizations in Azerbaijan have been much in the news over the last few months. Crescent International interviewed Haji Ramin Bayramov, Press Secretary of the Islamic organization, the National-Moral Values Union, and founder of the Azeri Islamic news portal www.islam-azeri.az.
CI: Azerbaijan was under communist rule for 75 years. Since gaining de-facto independence in 1990 how would you quantify the process of Islamic revival in Azerbaijan?
Haji Ramin: In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Mercy-Giving. Even before Azerbaijan gained independence our people had interest in maintaining Islamic values. People would discreetly organize Islamic gatherings at home or in their basements and they would especially organize these gatherings during important dates in accordance with the Islamic calendar. After communism collapsed, the people’s interest in learning about Islam increased even more. Even if some people today dislike the fact that Islamic revival is picking up, the truth is our people are becoming more and more aware of their Islamic identity and these numbers increase every day.
CI: What are the major difficulties the process of Islamic revival faces in Azerbaijan?
Haji Ramin: Every year the rights of the Islamic community in Azerbaijan are being violated in a very vulgar manner. Islamic organizations constantly face artificial barriers in their work. In neighboring Turkey our brothers in Islam have several Islamic TV and radio stations. In Azerbaijan we face severe restrictions not only in creating Islamic media outlets, but we also face obstacles in presenting our religion in non-Islamic media outlets through religious programs. For example Azerbaijan’s secular TV channel called ANS, had a very nice Islamic program called “Juma Conversations” which was shut down after a very brief period.
Religious organizations also face great hardships getting officially registered and if such organizations include members who do not agree with Israeli or US policies, its registration is almost impossible. One could list the problems which the Islamic community of Azerbaijan faces for hours.
It is not a secret to anyone that the main reasons behind restrictions that Islamic organizations face in Azerbaijan are the global forces of imperialism. Israeli news outlets often prepare publications about Azeri Islamic organizations in a manner that pit Islamic forces against the government and the wider society. The main objective behind such publications is to instigate government crackdown on Islamic organizations. For example, a few months ago the web news portal, Gorskiye, and another Israeli news portal with connections to Mossad, Debka, spread distorted and discrediting information about Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoglu, the Imam of Juma Mosque and one of Azerbaijan’s leading Islamic intellectuals. Those two Israeli news portals falsely accused Haji Ilgar of ordering the expulsion of Jews from Azerbaijan during his sermon in the city of Sumgait. It was later proved that these claims were completely false. Our own internet newspaper www.islam-azeri.az was also the target of an Israeli anti-Islamic campaign after we published several research reports about the former Israeli ambassador in Azerbaijan. After our publication, the Israeli news portal Izrus wrote several articles about us which were disguised messages to the Azeri government to act against us.
Another widely practiced campaign against Islamic organizations in Azerbaijan is the constant accusation that they are proxies of Iran and Turkey. This is done to create suspicions about their activities and instigate crackdowns.
CI: Would you say the overall strategy and work of Islamic organizations in Azerbaijan is effective?
Haji Ramin: All Islamic organizations in Azerbaijan have their own strategies. They function through the principle of consultation and constantly seek advice from among its members. In the last couple of years the activities of Islamic organizations have gained popularity and support in society. The fact that Islamic organizations face constant obstacles that increase every year, shows that our work is effective and affects the wider society. Even though Islamic organizations in Azerbaijan work independently, their goals are one and they cooperate with each other based on the principle of Islamic unity.
CI: Since Azeri society was kept aloof from Islam for 75 years and a large segment does not know much about it, how does this part view Islam today?
Haji Ramin: The interest that our society is showing towards Islam is big and this is proved by the fact that many officials are very angry about this phenomenon. Even if our people do not wish to live under Islamic law, we believe that they must be given an opportunity to choose and part of that opportunity to choose should be the availability of Islamic media outlets. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we face severe restrictions in establishing Islamic TV and radio stations our society is being deprived of its right to choose its path.
CI: How are Azerbaijan’s Islamic organizations affected by developments in the wider Muslim world?
Haji Ramin: Islamic organizations in Azerbaijan observe the events taking place in the Muslim world and we see ourselves as part of that process. One proof that shows that we are affected by global processes taking place in the wider Muslim world was the reaction shown by Islamic organizations when the Danish newspaper printed insulting images about our Prophet Muhammed (s). Islamic organizations organized several demonstrations against such insults. During the Israeli aggression on Lebanon and Gaza we also organized several rallies and conferences in support of the resistance.
CI: What concrete steps are being taken to foster greater unity among Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims in Azerbaijan by the Islamic organizations and the overall society?
Haji Ramin: Alhamdulillah, we do not have any serious Sunni-Shi‘i problems in Azerbaijan. Shi‘is go for prayers in Sunni mosques and Sunnis in Shi‘i mosques without any problem. We also organize many conferences and meetings which foster Islamic unity. Also when the Khawarij group attacked the Abu Bakrmosque with a grenade over a year ago in Baku, all Shi‘i Muslim organizations condemned this terror attack.
According to Shi‘i and Sunni narrations, the Prophet’s (s) birthday is in Rabi‘ al-Awwal, but five days apart from one another. However, due to Imam Khomeini’s verdict of declaring that week to be the week of Islamic Unity we celebrate the Prophet’s (s) birthday throughout the week with our Sunni brothers. We invite each other to our celebrations and exchange greetings with one another due to this festive occasion.
CI: Are the Sunni Muslim organizations that attend your events members of the government council of religious organizations or are they independent?
Haji Ramin: Both independent and governmental Sunni Muslim groups participate in our events. Most Sunni Muslim groups open to the concept of Islamic unity are those which are close to Turkey.
CI: After Azerbaijan’s independence, some organizations and individuals from Saudi Arabia came to Azerbaijan to propagate Wahhabi ideas of the Saudi regime. Between 1995 and 2000 those ideas spread in Baku. What do you think caused the spread of such thoughts in Baku?
Haji Ramin: One of the main reasons why Saudi ideas have spread in Baku was because back in those days our society experienced hunger for anything which propagated even partial morality. Also some former government members aided them in establishing their presence in Baku.
CI: Do Wahhabi organizations create obstacles in the path of Sunni-Shi‘i Muslim unity in Azerbaijan?
Haji Ramin: Wahhabi organizations do not create any major problem on the path of Sunni-Shi‘i unity. However, their takfiri and nationalist ideas create tensions in society. Many of their web news portals often attack Shi‘i beliefs in a very insulting and non-Islamic manner and often these websites try to put on the veneer of being Sunni Muslims. For example when a grenade attack on the Abu Bakr mosque took place, many Wahhabi web portals accused Shi‘i Muslims of carrying out the attack. However, later it was proved that the people responsible for these attacks were takfiri groups themselves. I doubt that the Wahhabis can create serious damage to Sunni-Shi‘i unity in Azerbaijan at present.
CI: In the past few months several mosques were bulldozed and destroyed by the Azeri regime under the pretext of being built without permits. Currently there is a decision pending demolition of Fatima al-Zahra mosque. What are the motives behind these policies?
Haji Ramin: A few years ago I read in a government newspaper an article which stated that “mosques in Azerbaijan are increasing in numbers just like mushrooms after rain.” After reading this statement I realized that from now on there will be serious obstacles in building and maintaining mosques in Azerbaijan. However, I never imagined that in the same year when Baku was declared the annual cultural capital of Islam, mosques will literally be destroyed. One cannot directly relate the policy of bulldozing down mosques to the news article I read, but it sent a certain message. All the recent anti-Islamic policies that took place in Azerbaijan such as mosque destructions, banning adhan and problems with hijab clearly indicate that these rulings are targeting Islam. We think such rulings will not benefit our society or the government and it is quite possible that these policies are regulated by foreign forces. We view these policies to be a rebellion against Allah (swt).
CI: If the government ignores legal documents which prove the legality of the mosque’s construction and decides to demolish the mosque, what will be the reaction of the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan and what can they do to change the decision?
Haji Ramin: Islamic organizations in Azerbaijan have held round table talks against the mosque destruction policies and organized several protest rallies. Our own organization has held a rally right in front of the mayor’s office in Baku. If the courts disregard the law and order destruction of the mosque, then we will definitely hold similar rallies. We are also considering writing a letter to the Organization of Islamic Conference and many other international organizations. We are hoping that the government will annul the ruling to demolish the mosque.
CI: Since 1995 Karabakh has been under Armenian occupation. For over 10 years there is still no solution to the conflict. What solution does the Islamic movement in Azerbaijan foresee for this problem?
Haji Ramin: Muslims and Islamic forces love peace, but we do not accept oppression. Russia, the US and other countries which act as intermediaries between us and the Armenian side are all supporters of Armenia and share many common interests with Armenian nationalists. This means that Azerbaijan must always be prepared for war in order to liberate our occupied Karabakh. If the war begins Islamic forces based on the principle derived from the hadith which states that “Loving ones home is faith” will participate in the liberation of Karabakh. We are cooperating with other Muslim countries on the issue of liberating Karabakh. Once Azerbaijan secures the backing of the Muslim states we must liberate our land.
CI: Do you think that the only way to liberate Karabakh is through military means?
Haji Ramin: It is possible to liberate Karabakh through peaceful means. However, we must not rely on those countries that do not respect our religion and way of life to be our intermediaries. I think with Turkey and Iran as intermediaries we can resolve the Karabakh problem. In order to do this we must suspend the activities of those states that pretend to be our intermediaries. Military solution is the last resort; however we must be ready for war, if necessary, to liberate our land and remove the disgrace of occupation.
CI: Some fringe groups in Azeri society spread rumors that Iran aided Armenia during its war of aggression against Azerbaijan. How accurate are these rumors?
Haji Ramin: These rumors are absolutely baseless. I personally re-member how Iranian military personnel were training our military in the 90s. We all also remember that in 1993 the Azeri government facilitated the arrival of over 1,000 Afghan volunteers to fight for the liberation of Karabakh. Azerbaijan does not border with Afghanistan, all volunteers were transported to Azerbaijan through Iran, obviously with the consent of the Islamic government in Iran. The presence of Afghan volunteers aided Azerbaijani forces greatly during the Fizuli offensive.
CI: Do you think the chances of military hostilities starting in Karabakh are high?
Haji Ramin: I think that in the current situation the war will not start. I don’t think that the US and other imperialist forces will allow Azerbaijan to slip out of their control so easily. If the war begins the oil will flow to the Azeri army and not to Israel or the US. The war will create some form of a new political situation where things will not be as they are now and this will shake the foundations of the current government. If the government chooses the path of war, it will be forced to shut its oil flow to the imperialist forces. In order for our country to have success in the war, the government must create higher standards of living for the population and halt the business monopoly exercised by some government officials. There needs to be a high level of political will to put these policies into action.